Excitement brewing over arena construction

By Terry Jones, Edmonton Sun

EDMONTON – There is excitement, of course, that there is a new downtown arena under construction in downtown Edmonton.

But it’s not at the level it should be.

This city should be  ‘holy spit’ sort of excited.

For months I’ve been trying to get an opportunity to see the actual architect plans and be walked through them and, after months of pestering and prodding, spent two hours in the Katz Group office on the 17th floor of the Bell Tower overlooking the site.

With a four-inch book of architect plans on the table and the images you see on these pages, I left there totally blown away by what the building is going to look like when the Oilers begin play there two years from now.

I’ve been in a few hockey rinks around the world. And I’m here to report this one is going to knock your hockey socks off and win rave reviews as the champion of them all.

Why they wouldn’t have been trumpeting this to the citizens of this city from the moment the shovels went in the ground, I have no idea.

I think it goes back to the trouble the City of Edmonton and the Katz Group had to get together and build this thing in the first place.

While the two groups battled publicly, their point men, Bob Black, executive vice-president of the Katz Group, and Rick Daviss, executive director of the arena district project for the city, were working on the design project behind the scenes.

There was so much secrecy and ill will involved that it sort of carried over, I think, but Wednesday I was at last presented with the opportunity to become the first member of the media to have it all laid out before me, with architect designs in hand and on a big screen in the board room.

“There was a time when the Katz Group and the city didn’t share the vision for what the building should be,” said Black.

“There was a time when the city was driving, because of public funding considerations, toward a more modest budget.

“When we had our parting of the ways in October of 2012, the budget was a very primary part of that.

“There was a time when the city thought we were designing without regard to a budget and we thought they were designing to a budget without regard to an outcome.

“But once we got to the $480-million budget in January of 2013 we really got shoulder to shoulder in the design process.

“We had to put the history of debate, discussion and disagreement behind us and we had to get on the same page. And we really did get, as a project leadership team, on the same side of the table,” said Black.

“I remember when we were at council and having those difficult discussions, I remember Tim Romani, who is the president of Icon Venue Group, stood up in front of council and said ‘You have a team working within your administration that is very driven by the budget and working very hard to make sure they can deliver as cost-effective a facility as they can. And you do have the Katz Group working hard to have the best possible design that can be brought forward.’

“And Romani told them that if the funding drove the design, you often ended up with a product that was, uh, OK. And he told them that if you went with a ‘Let’s get the best absolute design we can’ aproach, by the time you got to actually building it, you couldn’t afford parts of it.’ When you do have those two different priorities working, that’s when you get your best product. He was quite confident that, ‘If you guys can work together you will come up with a spectacular design that works for both of you.’ And that’s what we did,” said Daviss.

With a little help from Edmonton’s major international construction company PCL, there’s an absolute state-of-the-art building with bells and whistles galore coming out of the ground in our city.

“There was a pretty hard-nosed negotiation process between the project leadership group and PCL, and PCL, to their credit, took risk on delivering that building to us at that price. It’s a great Edmonton business, which was involved throughout the design process, constantly vetting the design against the estimated budget,” said Black.

“We thought from the very beginning that we shouldn’t aspire to having anything but the very best. And it’s going to be the very best.”

Looking out the window from the 17th floor of Bell Tower at the site, Daviss spoke to the project going forward.

“As you can see, we’re well on our way in terms of excavation. Piles are being put into the ground as we speak and they’re proceeding with the parkade structure under the rink for 350 cars, including 50 for the team and administration.

“You are going to see the structure start to come out of the ground in the fall of this year. It will be closed off with the exterior, and next summer we start working on the interior. And we’re looking at having it all completed in the late summer of 2016 so we’re ready for the opening of the 2016-17 season in September.

“The further we go through the design and the further it gets developped, we’re just getting more excited. We have an extreme level of confidence now that the vision we had is going to be realized,” said Daviss.

“We recognized from the beginning that we had one chance to get this right. And for this building to be the catalyst for great things in our downtown it had to be a world-class facility. It had to be that postcard snapshot of the City of Edmonton,” said Black, before going through the details.

First was the visual from the Katz office window and trying to visualize where the Edmonton version of “L.A. Live” would be located in place of parking lots, bus depot, Staples store, etc.

Then there was the explanation of the role of Denver’s Icon Venue Group as project manager

“Their job is to sit between the owner and the construction manager and other consultants. There are three members of their staff here full-time and three more part-time,” said Daviss of the operation headed by San Vaillant.

Icon has been project manager for four of the last seven NHL arenas including Pittsburgh, Columbus and Denver.

Then there was the architectural plans “walk through” for each level of the building.

The attached community arena:

“Initially it was to be 750 seats but with Grant McEwan Griffins coming in, we increased it to 1,000 seats for college requirements,” said Davis.

The suites:

“In the current building we have 64 suites. In the new building we went to 56. And the reason for that is we worked really hard with the design team to not only have the benefit of all the leading-edge thoughts on arena designs but also to design the arena very much for the Edmonton marketplace,” said Black. There will be a host of mini suites and four-to-six capacity open locations for another 1,100 fans.

The Winter Garden:

If you are thinking walkway over 104th think bigger. “All the levels look into the interior of the Winter Garden. It’s the grand entrance. It’s three-quarters of an acre of programable space. It’s more than a bridge or a walkway,” said Black.

It’s designed to be a celebration area. It could be a Brier Patch.

“If we had the NHL Draft, we would use it. When we’re in a Stanley Cup final, we’d absolutely use it. It comes complete with a large L.E.D. board. You could simulcast the game or event on it. The sounds from inside the arena into the Winter Garden. The sounds from the Winter Garden into the arena.

“Nobody has anything like this. If you can envision what happened in Maple Leaf Square during the playoffs in Toronto, envision it indoors in a magnificent piece of architecture. That’s the vision for this. It could contain a population of about 4,000 people.”

The arena will seat 18,641 for hockey and as many as 21,000 for a major concert or something less than 5,000 with a half-bowl concert. The lower bowl seats about 9,200. The percentage of seats in the lower bowl at Rexall Place is 37% (63% in the upper bowl), while in Rogers Place it’s 52% (48% in the upper bowl).

Rexall Place has 497,700 square feet. Rogers Place will have 820,200.

“The overall finish in this arena will be very high,” said Block of getting rid of the cinder block, stucco look of many interiors including the likes of Rexall Place. “It’ll be drywall. It’ll be colourful. It’ll be lively. It’ll be active,” said Davis.

“The level of finish inside will be a significant step up from the current building. Again, it will be best-in-class in terms of the NHL,” is how Black phrased it.

Unlike a couple of other facilities carrying the Rogers name, you’ll have no problem making phone calls, texting, tweeting, etc..

“This building will be the most technologically enabled building in the NHL. We spent a tremendous amount of time looking at the design from a cell and wifi system,” said Black.

“We’ll be able to offer apps which will be able to enhance the fan experience. Everything from being able to have direct access to select content to potentially being able to order food and beverage to your seat.”

Turn the page. Let’s go inside.

Follow me on Twitter.com/sunterryjones